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UNlogo.jpgIt's time to declare energy to be a human right.

Without energy, there is no way to light our homes, pump water, store vaccines, run computers, operate machinery, or communicate with the rest of the world. 

Energy is a cornerstone of modern civilization, yet 1.5 billion people still have no access to electricity. This is unacceptable.

But progress is being made. Earlier this week, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, while attending the World Future Energy Summit in Abu Dhabi, announced that 2012 has been designated by the United Nations General Assembly as the “International Year of Sustainable Energy for All”. 

For those of us who have been fighting energy poverty, this is a big deal.  In fact, this is a big deal for anyone and everyone who cares about clean water, food security, women’s empowerment, healthcare, education, poverty alleviation, and the protection of our global ecosystem, for energy access is a prerequisite for all of the above.

For far too long, the role of energy in meeting basic human needs had been overlooked by the international development community.  Energy access was not included as a Millennium Development Goal when the MDGs were first announced by the U.N. in the year 2000.  Ever since then, however, there has been a growing consensus that none of the MDGs can be achieved without access to modern energy services.   And now, with the declaration of the Year of Sustainable Energy for All, the United Nations has elevated the importance of energy access to the highest level of political discourse. The U.N. Secretary General is calling upon governments of the world, along with the private sector and civil society, to join forces in a global campaign to end energy poverty by the year 2030.

The UN Sustainable Energy for All Initiative is focused on three mutually reinforcing goals: 1) ensuring universal access to modern energy services; 2) doubling the rate of improvement in energy efficiency; and 3) doubling the share of renewable energy in the global energy mix.  

I am happy to see this campaign get underway. But we can do more. We can assign legal status to the notion of energy as a human right.  We can make it official!

On what grounds, then, can access to energy be considered a human right, and secondly, to what extent might a human rights platform help to accelerate progress towards the goal of universal energy access?

To find justification for the concept of energy as a human right, one need look no further than to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), which has its roots in the same process that led to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). In 1945, the newly established United Nations began drafting a “Declaration on the Essential Rights of Man”, which was split early on into a declaration setting forth general principles of human rights and a convention containing binding commitments.  The former evolved into the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and was adopted on December 10,1948.

Drafting on the convention continued, but due to ongoing differences among member states on the relative importance of “negative” civil and political rights versus “positive” economic, social, and cultural rights, the convention was eventually split into two separate documents: 1) the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and 2) the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.  Both drafts were presented to the UN General Assembly for discussion in 1954, and adopted on December 16, 1966.  As of July 2011, the Covenant had 160 parties.

A quick review of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights reveals just how essential energy access is to a wide range of socio-economic goals upheld by the ICESCR. Article 11 of the Covenant, for example, lists a number of rights that are essential to achieve a decent standard of living, including access to “adequate food, clothing and housing, and to the continuous improvement in living conditions”.  Article 12 confers the right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.  Articles 6 and 7 of the Covenant establish the right to work, while Article 13 establishes the right to education.   

While not identified as such, it may be argued that the right of access to modern energy is implicitly conferred by the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights as it is essential to the fulfillment of many if not most of the articles contained therein. This is precisely the case with the Millennium Development Goals: access to energy, though not included itself, is an absolute prerequisite for achieving each and every one of the MDGs.

With the launching of the International Year of Sustainable Energy for All, the timing could not be better for the assigning of legal status to the right of access to modern energy services.  Doing so would impose obligations on States, both at the national and international level.  A human rights approach to energy access would also help to mobilize the entire structure of the UN human rights apparatus, and empower organizations fighting for rights in other sectors to champion energy access as a key component of their respective agendas.

Let’s take women’s rights, for example, which are not only the focus of Millennium Development Goal No. 3 (“promote gender equality and empower women”) but which are also embodied in a number of international treaties, including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). Adopted in 1979 by the UN General Assembly, CEDAW is often described as an international bill of rights for women.  Consisting of a preamble and 30 articles, it defines what constitutes discrimination against women and sets up an agenda for national action to end such discrimination.

The Convention provides the basis for achieving equality between women and men through ensuring women’s equal access to, and equal opportunities in, political and public life as well as in the areas of education, health and employment.  According to Article 3 of the Convention, “States Parties shall take in all fields, in particular the political, social, economic and cultural fields, all appropriate measure, including legislation, to ensure the full development and advancement of women.”

In light of the above, the question is: how will women’s rights ever be safeguarded if they are the ones who have to walk miles every day to fetch water and fuel? Or inhale the noxious fumes from indoor cooking fires and kerosene lamps? Or give birth in the dark?  

Women surely bear the greatest burden when it comes to energy poverty, and unless and until modern energy services are made available to them, women—especially those in rural areas—will continue to suffer from gross inequalities in their health, education, and economic opportunity.    

Water is another issue that is tightly interwoven with that of energy, but in terms of rights, water has made greater progress.  In fact, on July 28, 2010, the United Nations passed a resolution declaring that access to clean water and sanitation is a human right.  In adopting the resolution, the UN General Assembly expressed deep concern that almost 900 million people worldwide do not have access to clean water, and called upon member states and international organizations to help poorer countries scale up efforts to provide clean, accessible and affordable drinking water and sanitation for everyone.

And yet, access to clean water itself depends upon energy.  For example, the MDG target of reducing by half the number of people without access to clean water will require one million electric pumps.  Many types of water purification systems also require electricity to operate.   So in the final analysis, the right to clean water—which underpins a number of other social and economic human rights—is itself dependent upon having access to modern forms of energy.

The same argument can be extended to other sectors as well. Healthcare is an obvious one.  Without access to energy, especially electricity, it is not possible to store vaccines and other vital medicines, or operate a modern healthcare facility.  The concept of health as a human right has made great strides in recent years, and is now championed by a growing number of visionary leaders such as Dr. Paul Farmer, who recognizes and has publically spoken out on the critical importance of modern energy in delivering healthcare services to the poor.

 

The list goes on and on.  Whether it be in terms of gender equality, clean water, healthcare, or any number of other priorities not discussed here (such as food security, poverty alleviation, or protection of the environment), energy access—or the lack thereof—invariably factors into the equation. Since all the Millennium Development Goals, and many of the rights upheld by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, ultimately depend upon having access to modern forms of energy, it is time that we declare energy itself to be a human right.

In light of the fact that 2012 has just been designated by the United Nations as the International Year of Sustainable Energy for All, I cannot think of a better way to strengthen the resolve of the global development community in its efforts to achieve universal energy access.

A human rights platform would provide a strong moral basis as well as an authoritative legal structure by which to pressure governments to provide basic energy services to their people, especially those living in rural and remote regions.  It’s not just about investing government resources, which in the developing world can be quite limited; it’s about creating an enabling environment—in terms of laws, policies, and regulatory frameworks—that will encourage creative partnerships between local governments, civil society, and the private sector to increase energy access for the poor.

Energy is essential for life.  It is essential for achieving the Millennium Development Goals.  And it is essential for safeguarding a broad range of basic human rights.  The right of access to energy is, in fact, implicitly conferred by a number of international treaties and conventions, but now the time has come to make such an assumption explicit and formally declare—with the full backing and authority of the United Nations—that access to modern energy is, and shall henceforth be deemed, a fundamental human right.

MDG SLIDE 3.jpg
 
In September 2000, world leaders came together at the United Nations Headquarters in New York to adopt the United Nations Millennium Declaration, committing their nations to a new global partnership to reduce extreme poverty and establishing a series of time-bound targets - with a deadline of 2015 - that have become known as the Millennium Development Goals, or “MDGs” for short.

 

The Millennium Development Goals, which all 192 United Nation member states and at least 23 international organizations have signed on to, include 1) eradicating extreme poverty and hunger; 2) achieving universal primary education; 3) promoting gender equality and empowering women; 4) reducing child mortality; 5) improving maternal health; 6) combating HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases; 7) ensuring environmental sustainability; and 8) building a global partnership for development

 

When the Millennium Development Goals were first announced 10 years ago, I was surprised and disappointed to learn that energy access had not been included by the U.N. as one of the MDGs.  For without access to modern energy services, none of the MDGs are ultimately achievable. However, in the past few years, a growing number of institutions, including the United Nations itself and the International Energy Agency, have come to acknowledge and promote the fundamental importance of modern energy in meeting all of the Millennium Development Goals.

 

So how exactly does energy relate to the MDGs?   Let us take a closer look.  For each of the Millennium Development Goals, I have provided an example or two of the role that energy access can play in fulfilling that goal.  Please bear in mind that the list of examples included here is by no means exhaustive.

 

 

MDG1.jpg

 

Eradicate Extreme Poverty and Hunger

 

 

 

 

  • Household lighting extends the productive work day.
  • Electricity facilitates the establishment of village-based micro-enterprises.
  • Energy for irrigation increases food production and access to nutrition.

 

MDG2.jpg

 

Achieve universal primary education

 

 

  • Household lighting enables children to read and study at night.
  • Energy services reduce time spent by school-going children on basic survival activities, such as fetching water and firewood.
  • Electricity enables the use of educational media, computers, and Internet access at schools.
 

 

MDG3.jpg

 

Promote gender equality and empower women

 

  • Modern energy services free women from extreme household drudgery, increase their employment opportunities, and allow them to participate more fully in community activities.
  • Energy access reduces girls’ burden to collect water and fuel, increasing their school enrollment.

 

 

MDG4.jpg

 

Reduce child mortality

 

 

  • Energy is a prerequisite for a functional health system, contributing, for example, to lighting operating theaters, refrigerating vaccines, sterilizing equipment, and providing communications.
  • Energy for water pumping and purification greatly reduces the risk of water borne diseases.

 

 

MDG5.jpg

 

Improve maternal health

 

 

  • Besides its centrality to the healthcare system, modern energy can lower maternal mortality by reducing the level of indoor air pollution, which kills 1.6 million people every year.

 

 

MDG6.jpg

 

Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases  

 

  • Modern energy services for power and communications in rural clinics and hospitals enable a quantum leap in health services.

  

MDG7.jpg

 

Ensure environmental sustainability 

  • Access to renewable energy technologies helps to preserve natural resources and lowers emissions, which helps protect the local and global environment.

 

MDG8.jpg

Build a global partnership for development

 

  • The global north can help achieve the MDGs by providing increased access to renewable energy technologies and finance to the least developed countries.

 

As a 10-year progress report on the Millennium Development Goals was presented at the United Nations during its general assembly in September of this year, Secretaty-General Ban Ki-moon hosted a dinner at the U.N. to kickstart an awareness campaign around the need for universal energy access.  I was delighted to be present at this dinner, and to see the growing consensus among world leaders that unless and until we find a way to sustainably deliver modern energy services to the quarter of humanity still living without electricity, we will never fully achieve the MDGs.

cop15.pngI’ve just returned from the COP15 talks in Copenhagen.

One of the events I attended was a CNN/YouTube–sponsored debate that featured the following panelists: Yvo de Boer, Exec. Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, NY Times Op-Ed columnist and Pulitzer-prize winning author Thomas Friedman, actor/environmentalist Daryl Hannah, and Bjorn Lomborg, Director of the Copenhagen Consensus Center.


Mr. Lomborg, an environmental skeptic, says he believes in the concept of anthropogenic (human-induced) climate change, but unlike the vast majority of people and organizations who attended COP15, he doesn’t think that cutting carbon emissions is the best approach to dealing with the problem. Instead, he argues, we should invest our time and money helping those who are most vulnerable to the adverse affects of global warming.

In an article (“Time for a Smarter Approach to Global Warming”) that appeared in the Dec 15, 2009 edition of  the Wall Street Journal, Mr. Lomborg states that “money spent on carbon cuts is money we can’t use for effective investments in food aid, micronutrients, HIV/AIDs prevention, health and education infrastructure, and clean water and sanitation.”  

While I appreciate Mr. Lomborg’s concern for the poor—and yes, it is true that the world’s poorest citizens will, in fact, suffer the greatest from climate change even though they are least responsible for causing it—I do not agree with his reductionist way of thinking.  It’s the same old false dichotomy of “the economy versus the environment” argument, repackaged in a different form and for a different audience.
 
According to Mr. Lomborg, people who are dying of AIDS or malaria, or who are worrying about how they’re going to get their next meal, could care less about global warming.  That may well be true, but dealing with their individual plights while ignoring the causes simply perpetuates and compounds their problems. He fails to recognize that unless the rural poor gain access to modern energy services, they will have little hope of ever dealing effectively with the host of ills and injustices that plague their lives.

This point was certainly not lost on Tom Friedman who, sitting right next to Bjorn Lomborg at the CNN/YouTube debate in Copenhagen, astutely countered Mr. Lomborg’s specious argument with the following remarks:

…every problem Bjorn referred to is an energy problem. The school that has no light, that’s an energy problem. A clinic in a remote part of Africa that doesn’t have the capacity to refrigerate medicines, that’s an energy problem.  These are all energy problems, and if we, the developed countries, take the lead in driving down the cost of distributed energy, we are solving both problems (climate and poverty).

Watch:


Needless to say, I concur with Tom Friedman, and I am also pleased that I had an opportunity to contribute to his thinking on the subject of energy poverty, a topic to which he devotes a full chapter in his book, Hot, Flat and Crowded.  I am grateful to Mr. Friedman for having quoted me in his book, and more importantly, for having articulated to a global audience the indispensable role that modern energy must play in meeting the Millennium Development Goals. Thanks to Hot, Flat, and Crowded, people around the world are now familiar with the concept of energy poverty.

Had I had the opportunity to interject in yesterday’s CNN/YouTube debate, I would have described to Mr. Lomborg my recent trip to northern Benin, where I witnessed a dramatic improvement in food security thanks to solar power and its ability to pump water for drip irrigation.  Or, I might have cited the example of Dr. Paul Farmer whose organization Partners In Health is now using solar as the primary source of power for its rural health centers in Rwanda, Lesotho and Haiti — where tens of thousands of poor patients are being treated for HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and other diseases.  Or, perhaps I would have mentioned Zwelenqaba High School in rural South Africa, where students are now able to gain computer skills and access information via the Internet thanks to a solar-powered computer lab that was installed last year.

These are perfect examples of how investing in clean, renewable energy for the developing world can not only help mitigate against climate change but also improve the health, education and economic security of some of the poorest people on earth.

At the CNN/YouTube debate in Copenhagen, and again in the Wall Street Journal, Mr. Lomborg calls for an increase in R&D in the cleantech space as the best way to counter global warming.  While I agree that basic research is important, the fact is, a number of renewable energy solutions, including solar and wind, have already benefited over the past couple of decades from dramatic reductions in cost and improvements in efficiency.  Solar cells are now being produced for under $1.00 per watt, and new breakthroughs are being announced on a regular basis.  Interestingly, the innovations are being driven by business opportunity as much as anything.

Even without further technological breakthroughs, however, solar energy today represents the least-cost option for generating electric power in parts of the world that are not connected to a conventional utility grid. 

We don’t need to wait any longer before we help those most vulnerable to the impact of climate change by enabling them to adopt clean energy solutions in their own lives and communities.

It’s time for a smarterand more holisticapproach to combating climate change.  Let’s turn to the sun to help people and the planet.

Watch the full debate here >>

hopenhagen.jpgI’m lovin’ it”??  There is still hope in Copenhagen. And a sense that our time is running out.  The sincerity of the world’s young people is on full display, as Bishop Desmond Tutu observed

copenhagenpeace.jpgThe question I’m raising is: can our governments and our businesses show the same level of commitment?

Earlier, Bishop Tutu had raised the question of how much rich nations are willing to pay poor ones to secure emission cuts.  The point he made is that one we have been making for some time now: the fight against energy poverty must be a global priority.

tutu.jpgOur position is simple: energy is a human right.

A few days ago, Prince Nasheed of the Maldives eloquently invited leaders to join him in signing a pact for the survival of their low-lying coastal countries, instead of a “suicide pact” at the UN climate talks in Copenhagen. Watch:



Steven Chu, the US Secretary of Energy, announced a plan to deploy clean technology on Monday, and I know SELF can play an effective role in his Climate Renewables and Efficiency Deployment Initiative.

In yesterday’s edition of the Washington Post, Juliet Eilperin cites the Solar Electric Light Fund  as an organization with a proven track record of bringing cost-effective solar solutions to poor villages in the developing world. Working with government, industry and non-governmental organization partners, SELF has facilitated solar electricity projects in twenty countries, including Benin, Bhutan, Brazil, Burundi, China, Côte d’Ivoire, India, Indonesia, Losotho, Navajo Nation, Nepal, Nigeria, Rwanda, Solomon Islands, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, Uganda, Vietnam, and Zimbabwe.

We’ve been at it for twenty years.  Here’s what we do:

  • Bring partners and participants together
  • Establish “in-country” joint ventures and “for-profit partnerships”
  • Develop projects with community and local stakeholders
  • Identify options, formalize project design
  • Develop written proposals
  • Design micro-finance mechanisms
  • Provide technical design of photovoltaic systems
  • Procure project equipment
  • Train solar technicians
  • Manage system installation
  • Manage partner relationships
  • Build the capacity of local partners
  • Prepare evaluations and reports

Our goal?

We work to deliver solar power and wireless communications to rural villages in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

SELF
facilitates a new generation of “whole village” solar electrification projects to power water pumping and purification, drip irrigation, health clinics (including vaccine refrigeration), schools, household and community lighting, and income-generating micro-enterprises that can be scaled up through the private sector or through public/private partnerships.


brightgreen.jpgplanethope_s.jpgBack in Copenhagen, I had the pleasure of meeting Haakon, the Crown Prince of Norway, on Saturday at the Bright Green Expo

The Norwegians are taking Copenhagen very seriously, and are also deeply committed to eradicating poverty in developing nations.

It’s time.  The world has waited long enough.

copenhagen.jpgOne of the central issues that will be discussed at Copenhagen is the obligation of rich nations to help poor nations by committing "to far deeper emissions cuts than they already have, and to provide them with cash and technology so they can prepare for the worst and develop a clean energy infrastructure for themselves."

In spite of all the uncertainty surrounding COP15, I'm going to Copenhagen as an optimist. I agree with Bill McKibben's point that we need a dramatic breakthrough in Copenhagen, and I believe there are signs that President Obama's behind-the-scenes negotiations just may pay off.

obama_bob.jpgFor nearly 20 years, the mission of our Solar Electric Light Fund (SELF) has been to provide solar power and communications to a quarter of the world’s population living in energy poverty.

SELF believes that energy is a human right.

To meet global challenges such as food and water scarcity, climate change and poverty, SELF is working to assign greater priority to the importance of sustainable energy among international development banks, aid agencies, foundations, and philanthropic individuals, who are committed to improving the health, education, and economic prospects of the world's poorest citizens.

impact.gif
We define energy poverty as a lack of access to clean and efficient energy systems. Energy poverty exacts its toll on the health, education, food and livelihoods of the world’s poorest people. Energy is a foundation, a prime condition, a prerequisite to a healthy living and a competitive economy, without which:

  • Health Clinics go without lighting and medical equipment and without necessary refrigeration to preserve vaccines and other vital medicines for yellow fever, polio, tetanus, whooping cough, and hepatitis A and B.
  • Schools go without dependable lighting to facilitate education and ensure the well-being of their students.
  • Community knowledge is compromised when connectivity by radio and telephone is not possible.
  • Agricultural production is hindered by lack of irrigation systems, which leads to the loss of precious day-light hours to traditional fuel-gathering, severely impeding economic progress.
  • Homes are lit with kerosene lamps, which give dim and wavering light, emit cancer-causing smoke, and cause thousands of devastating house fires every year. In contrast, light produced by solar power is carbon free clean, steady, bright, and safe.
  • Drinking water is dangerously contaminated with disease-carrying waste and agricultural runoff.
  • Micro-Enterprise is severely hampered, as nightfall comes at about 6:30 p.m. year-round, effectively ending the productive work day without access to electric light.
  • Urban Migration causes explosive growth of cities in developing nations, straining the natural environment and overwhelming cities' social service systems.
  • The lack of irrigation leads to unsustainable farming practices.
The list goes on and on.  This is the impact of energy poverty, the root cause of so much suffering in the world.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the Kalalé District of Benin in West Africa - a poor, dry region in the northern part of the country with approximately 100,000 people - none of whom have access to the electric grid. The economy, as in most rural districts, is mainly based on agriculture with more than 95% of the population involved with farming. Despite its great potential, crop production in Kalalé remains weak and easily influenced by natural conditions. There is precious little rainfall during the six-month dry season that runs from November through April each year.

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You can learn about SELF's work in Benin here. This is the whole-village development concept that SELF has been implementing for some time now. We call it our Solar Integrated Development ( SID) Model, and we'd like to scale the process across Africa.

My hope for Copenhagen is that we might just succeed in making the fight against energy poverty a global priority.

I believe SELF has created the right model for sustainable development across much of rural Africa, China, and India. It's time we used solar energy to reap a digital dividend (as C.K. Prahalad calls it) for the poor. Fighting energy poverty is, in my mind, a cleantech opportunity. Sustainability and innovation go hand in hand.

I'm confident we will see a new "coalition of the willing" emerge in Copenhagen  - this time to save the Earth.  The consequences of inaction are too serious to ignore.

My next blog post will be from Copenhagen.  Stay tuned.


In the March/April 2001 edition of Foreign Affairs, Harvard professor Clayton M. Christensen, along with co-authors Thomas Craig and Stuart Hart, referenced SELF as a good example of an organization using "disruptive technology" to advance economic development for the poorest of the poor. 

In his recent article, "The Need for New Value Networks", published in eGov monitor, the online platform of the UK-based Policy Dialogue International, Christensen says current efforts to shift to more efficient, lower-carbon energy sources are based on a misguided approach.

"History has shown that cramming new technologies into existing value networks rarely succeeds", says Christensen at the outset of the article. To illustrate his point, he describes how the leading consumer electronic companies in the fifties (such as Maganov, Zenith and RCA) were hesitant to replace their vacuum-tube based radios and televisions with transistor-based models because the latter offered lower fidelity and more static.

Then Sony came along, explains Christiansen, and figured out a way to market its low-priced, low-quality products by selling transistor radios to "people who didn’t already have a radio (primarily young adults) for listening in a new context (away from home, but out of the car) through a channel that the incumbent companies didn’t use (department stores)." The quality of its transistor radios gradually improved over time, and Sony evolved into one of the world’s most successful consumer electronic companies. Christensen adds that "most of Sony’s vacuum tube-based competitors never successfully made the switch to transistors. They are all gone now."

Christiansen then goes on to draw a parallel between the short-sightedness of the vacuum tube-based electronics companies of yesterday and the misguided approach at innovation that, in his opinion, is prevalent among today’s incumbent energy and utility companies.

As long as fossil fuels represent the cheapest and most convenient way to power our homes and cars, argues Christiansen, "making alternative energy sources cost-effective and plug-compatible in this system is a very, very difficult challenge."

"But what about in the developing world?", asks Christiansen towards the end of his article in eGov monitor. "What about applications where the attributes of alternative energy are valuable and unique when compared to traditional fuels?" "Spending our time and effort, Christiansen concludes, on identifying those applications where the virtues of alternative energy resources are most valued relative to the traditional options will likely do more to accelerate the pace of innovation in the energy sector than government subsidy or tax credit."

In parts of the world that have been never had access to electricity, it’s amazing what a difference a few watts of energy can make. For example, installing a 50 watt solar panel on the roof of a thatched hut will generate enough power to run a few lights, a radio, and a few small appliances for 4-5 hours each evening. That might not sound like much to us, but rest assured, it’s totally transformative for a rural family that has previously been forced to retreat each evening after the sun goes down into a home lit dimly, if at all, by candles or smoky kerosene lamps.

Or take healthcare. A few hundred watts’ worth of solar panels installed on a rural clinic is enough to power a few lights and small vaccine refrigerator. Immunization programs often breakdown in rural areas without power because there’s no way to store vaccines, which must be kept between 0 and 8°C.

Or consider water. A submersible pump, powered by a 2 kilowatt (that’s 2000 watts) solar array, can supply a village of 3000 people with their daily water requirements. Imagine that -- 2000 watts and you’ve got clean water for an entire village! (By way of comparison, some hair dryers use more than a 1000 watts of power.)

The list goes on and on. Whether you’re talking about health, education, or economic development, a tiny (by our standards) investment of energy "capital" in an unelectrified community will yield enormous dividends to that community, dividends that will continue to pay off for decades to come.

It is ironic that some of the poorest, most isolated places on earth have leapfrogged the entire fossil fuel age and traditional telecom infrastructure by plugging directly into solar power and wireless communication networks.

As we forge ahead with new breakthroughs in thin-film solar cells, LED lighting, advanced batteries, next-generation satellites, and long-range WiFi networking solutions, I, for one, hope that these new technologies will continue to have the greatest impact in the developing world.

The third of humanity who are still off-grid and off-line are waiting desperately to be electrified and to be connected. Perhaps the first company to figure out a way of delivering sustainable power and communications to these two billion people will become the next Sony...of the energy world!

When I did the Massive Change interview back in 2004, I was asked mostly about solar home lighting systems and the use of microfinance as a way of making this technology affordable to rural households in the developing world. Aside from a brief discussion of wireless communications, I didn't really go into the multiple ways in which solar energy can be used for a wide range of applications beyond the home at the community level.

At the time, we had just launched our project in northern Nigeria, where each of three villages had been equipped with solar systems for water pumping, school, health clinic, street lighting, mosque, and a microenterprise center. This holistic approach later evolved into what has become our "solar integrated development" (SID) model.

In the nineties, through a series of solar pilot projects around the world, SELF demonstrated the willingness and ability of rural families to pay for solar electricity at the household level if they are given access to credit.

Even though SELF is a nonprofit organization, we did not believe that giving these systems away outright would be sustainable over the long term. On the other hand, the cost of a solar home system, which averages $400-500, is prohibitively expensive for the vast majority of rural households in the developing world if that have to pay cash
upfront.

To overcome the high initial cost of photovoltaic technology, SELF pioneered a variety of financing mechanisms which enable families to purchase solar home systems over time, typically three to four years, paying only slightly more than what they previously spent on kerosene, candles, and dry-cell batteries.

Small amounts of interest would be built into the credit schemes, and as monthly installments were collected, the funds would be used to finance additional units for other families.

Our goal was not merely to supply solar lighting systems to, let’s say, 50 or 100 homes in a given village, and walk away, but rather to establish a mechanism that could be self-sustaining over the long term, and that would eventually pave the way for the commercialization of solar household electrification in the developing world.
Formulated by the United Nations as a blueprint for meeting the needs of the world’s poorest citizens, the Millennium Development Goals, or “MDGs” as they’re referred to, set forth a bold and comprehensive prescription for eradicating extreme poverty, achieving universal primary education, promoting gender equality, reducing child mortality, improving maternal health, combating HIV/AIDS, and protecting the environment.

Astonishingly, access to modern energy has not been included by the United Nations as one of the Millennium Development Goals, despite the fact that, without an energy component, none of the MDGs are ultimately achievable.

Didn't they know that Energy is a Human Right?

They should've asked my friend Dr. Paul Farmer (Partners in Health).

He'd tell them that a reliable energy source is essential for the operation of hospitals and clinics.

With the exception of Egypt and South Africa, 85 percent of Africa’s 680 million people live in rural areas without electricity.


Diesel generators are the traditional solution — but hardly the best. Diesel is expensive and polluting, including greenhouse gases. And generator breakdowns are common, with replacement parts typically miles and days away.

Faced with a choice between solar and diesel at five rural health clinics in eastern Rwanda, Partners In Health took the solar path, collaborating with SELF on systems for the communities of Mulindi, Rusumo, Rukira, Nyarabuye, and Kirehe. The systems are solar- diesel hybrid systems that generate 90 percent or more of their power from the sun, with diesel generators for back-up during prolonged heavy usage, or in periods of rain.

Back to Dr. Farmer.  Here's what he said about the impact of solar power on the operations of his clinics:

"You can't do this without electricity. Because you're not going to have an operation room. You're not going to have a laboratory. You're not going to see people at night..."

More on Partners In Health and SELF here»

“Energy is a human right.”   We use the phrase daily at the Solar Electric Light Fund (SELF), a Washington, DC – based nonprofit organization whose mission is to bring solar power to rural and remote villages in the developing world.

But what does the phrase really mean?  After all, people talk about human rights; they talk about social and economic rights; and some folks – like Dr. Paul Farmer, famed “physician to the poor” and co-founder of Partners In Health, – even talk about health as a human right

But “energy” as human right?  Now that’s a new one! 

It’s precisely because this notion of “energy as a human right” may strike many as being a bit odd or abstruse that I’ve decided the time has finally come for me to sit down and start this blog as a way to educate as many people as I can about a subject I care deeply about and which has huge implications for the future sustainability of  the planet.

I’m talking about the fact that some two billion people—almost a third of humanity—still live  without access to electricity.  Located mostly in rural villages in the developing world, these people are forced to retreat each evening into homes that are illuminated, if at all, by the dim light of candles or smoky, polluting kerosene lanterns. 

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The problem is especially acute in sub-Saharan Africa, where in many countries as much as 80-90% of the population is without power.  If you look at satellite image of the earth at night, Africa appears, literally, as a “dark continent”. 
 
This is an issue in which I have been personally involved for the past 15 years, ever since I first got involved with SELF.

At the time, I was living and working in Taiwan.   I had read about China’s first “solar village”, a tiny hamlet in the hard-scrabble mountains of Gansu Province.  I wrote to SELF and requested to visit Gansu, and perhaps write a story about how solar energy had impacted the lives of those  poor farmers who had been living in darkness for centuries. 

One thing led to the next, and before I knew it, I was hired to spend two months in Gansu, overseeing the solar household lighting  initiative that had been launched by SELF, with support from the Rockefeller Foundation and the W. Alton Jones Foundation.

There, in this isolated, dirt poor corner of China, I got to observe families turn on a light bulb for the very first time in their lives.

The following passage is an excerpt of a letter from a farmer who had just installed a solar home system:

As the fixtures were about to be plugged in, we waited breathlessly. In a flash, the lights came on, and as they did, an old man from the village rubbed his eyes in disbelief, and exclaimed, “I have long heard that city folks do not need oil to generate light, but in all my seventy years, this is the first time to actually see such a phenomenon with my own eyes. What a beautiful sight to behold!”

Over the course of the next decade and a half, in my work with the SELF, I have witnessed, in village after village, the heavy toll that “energy poverty” exacts on the health, education, and livelihoods of people who do not have access to electricity.

I have also been fortunate enough to see and document the numerous benefits that even modest amounts of electricity, generated by the sun, can deliver to previously unelectrified households and communities.

The purpose of this blog is twofold: first, to inform and educate the general public about energy poverty and its deep relevance to virtually every aspect of sustainable development; and second, to chronicle the many examples of how solar energy has been, and continues to be, harnessed for improvements in the health, education, and economic well-being of rural villagers who have, for far too long, been deprived of what should be a sine qua non of civilized life in the 21st century.

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